A settlement with former factory employees looks unlikely to satisfy campaigners seeking justice over mercury pollution at Kodaikanal

Indian activists have welcomed Unilever’s settlement with former workers at a thermometer factory in India after a 15-year campaign and vowed to step up pressure on the multinational to clean up mercury pollution around the ecologically sensitive site.

In March the company’s Indian subsidiary, Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL), agreed to pay 591 former employees at the Kodaikanal factory an undisclosed sum following an international outcry over health problems and premature deaths they claim were linked to mercury leakage from the plant.

A 2011 Indian government report concluded that factory workers had been exposed to mercury and many showed the effects of mercury poisoning.

Rachita Taneja, from Jhatkaa.org, which helped coordinate the social media campaign for compensation for the former workers, said: “People power works. That’s the key lesson we’re drawing [from the announcement of the settlement.]

“We’ll continue to lift up the hundreds of thousands of voices who have joined this campaign since last July to ensure that Unilever now cleans up its mercury mess in Kodaikanal.”

The campaign was galvanised by the viral music video Kodaikanal Won’t, by Chennai-born rapper Sofia Ashraf, and more than 150,000 people petitioned and tweeted to hold Unilever CEO Paul Polman accountable.

Corporate accountability group SumOfUs in the US and 38 Degrees in the UK added international backing for the campaign.

Nityanand Jayaraman, an activist and writer who has been part of the campaign since it started in 2001, described the clean-up of the site 15 years after the factory closed as “unfinished business” and said the multinational was likely to face further scrutiny from shareholders at its UK and Dutch AGMs on 20 and 21 April.

The factory was closed in 2001 after glass thermometers containing mercury were found to have been sold to a scrap dealer in a densely populated part of the town, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Analysis showed mercury had also been discharged behind its factory, located in the Pambar Shola Reserved Forest, a tropical evergreen area that is now part of the Kodaikanal Wildlife Sanctuary. Community Environmental Monitoring, a project run by Indian NGO The Other Media, says this mercury cannot be recovered and will remain in circulation in the ecosystem, say posing a threat to two watersheds that lie either side of the ridge on which the factory site is located.

Claims disputed

Unilever says it has been the victim of a campaign of misinformation on the health and environmental impacts of the thermometer plant, and last year published a lengthy article rebutting claims on its website.

In a letter to Friends of the Earth Scotland last year, Unilever’s chief executive, Paul Polman stated that independent monthly testing of employees when the plant was operating had shown no evidence of any health impacts. However, after a group former employees petitioned Madras High Court for compensation five years after the plant closed “we agreed to act as proposed by the court, to seek an out-of-court settlement on humanitarian grounds.”.

Asked by Ethical Corporation about an Indian government report concluding former factory workers were harmed, a spokesman for Unilever said several independent studies by experts had shown that was not the case.

“No medical examinations were made by the [Indian government] committee. They only interviewed those who came for examination and made notes on their complaints without examining them,” the spokesman said. “The report was based on health assessments which did not seek to establish any cause-effect relationship between the ill health of the workers and their time at the factory, despite the fact that their symptoms could have occurred due to many other factors.”

On the environmental damage claims, Polman told Friends of the Earth Scotland that a detailed study by independent experts in 2001, after the closure of the plant, “found no worrying levels of leakage [of mercury] or damage” to the nearby lake, fish or local fauna.

While three areas on the former factory site still needed remediation from mercury contamination, Polman said the company’s clean-up efforts had been halted by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) after local NGOs said the proposed clean-up standard was not rigorous enough.

Unilever says it will resume the clean-up as soon as it gets approval of the detailed project report it submitted to the TNPCB in October 2015 as well as necessary statutory permissions.

“Applying this standard would make the soil safe for children to play in, to grow root vegetables from, and would be protective to the environment,” Unilever told Ethical Corporation. “Remediating the soil to a more onerous standard would cause greater ecological damage because significantly more soil would need to be excavated and trees felled.”

However, such statements do not placate the Indian activists, who have released a point by point contradiction of Unilever’s article. They maintain that even after the cleanup, the levels of mercury left in the soil will be 25 times more than would be acceptable in the UK. Shweta Narayan, an activist with The Other Media, said: “With its refusal to clean up Kodaikanal as it would a site in the United Kingdom, Unilever is begging for another global campaign, and we are happy to oblige.”

EthicsWatch  pollution  mercury poisoning  social media  CR  shareholders  accountability 

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